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Arts & Life

Spevak: Why can't every night be like Fringe Fest?

Jeff Spevak
A pair of trapeze artists in the Spiegeltent

Watching a guy regurgitate a string of razor blades doesn’t necessarily ruin a beautiful September evening in Rochester.

The KeyBank Rochester Fringe Festival is in the midst of a 12-day run, a parade of the arts that changes the nature of downtown. We are seeing a city utilized to its fullest extent, for the benefit of its citizens. A culture-driven celebration that embraces the unique spaces, the puttering generators of food trucks, sidewalks, music, comedians, actors, dancers, satirists, and the afore-mentioned practitioner of the razor-blade arts. This is why we live here, whether you are aware of it or not.

The Spiegelgarden glows at night with strings of lights, propane flames, and the flicker of images from the movie being shown on a large outdoor screen. It feels like you’ve encountered a gypsy camp at the intersection of Gibbs and East Main streets. And perhaps here you’ll find answers to weighty questions from Joanne Brokaw and Sara Moore at the “Ask Us Anything” booth.

The Victorian Spiegeltent is where Matt Morgan and his wife, Heidi Brucker Morgan, have presented the last few years of Cirque du Fringe shows. This one is called “D’Illusion,” a mix of buffoonery and high-anxiety stunts, presented in a Harry Potter setting. It’s traditional sleight of hand, cowgirl aerials, bullwhip tricks, ladder dancing and Japanese illusionist TanBA, the guy who appears to swallow balloons and razor blades, only to yank them all from his mouth in one very unsettling conclusion to his act.

Credit Jeff Spevak / WXXI News
The Japanese illusionist TanBA

Witnesses to past Cirque du Fringes eagerly show up each night to see if Morgan will continue what has become a Fringe Festival tradition of stripping down to his underwear, his tighty whities. The Morgans, who live and work out of Las Vegas, are also behind the late-night performance of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” in which both actors and audience participate in an alcohol-driven version called “Shotspeare.” I’ve been practicing.

We’ve come to expect big things at Rochester Fringe. Last weekend’s debut of the huge inflatables of Plasticiens Volants was cancelled when it couldn’t overcome the triptych of Friday the 13th, a full moon and high winds. Nevertheless, people came to East Main Street, and the otherwise empty gravel lot that is optimistically named Parcel 5, listening to the DJ and just hanging out. And when the French inflatables did appear the next evening for two shows, thousands of people looked to the sky, watching giant, glowing creatures from an otherworldly ocean.

A Rochester Fringe constant is, not all performers are created equal. Many shows are works in progress. This could be something brilliant, or the last chance for a creative spark that just isn’t catching fire. Audience participation is welcome. In fact, it is sometimes the point.

OK, maybe musicians and comedians and drag queens taking over downtown Rochester isn’t your thing. How about economics? According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis and the National Endowment for the Arts, arts and culture contributed over $763.6 billion to the American economy during 2015, the latest year that those numbers are available. That’s a larger number than we see from agriculture, or transportation. Nearly five million Americans are employed in the arts.

Some of my favorite moments at Rochester Fringe, or the Rochester International Jazz Festival, which takes over these same streets in June, comes when the stages have grown silent. That’s when small groups of people are standing around in the crisp fall air, chatting quietly about what they’ve just seen. Why can’t it be like this every night?

Back at the Spiegeltent, another performance of “D’Illusion” is coming to a close. Matt Morgan has a fake knife protruding from his chest as a cable hauls him to the tent’s ceiling, where the aerialists do their work. Oh dear. He’s lost pants again and, as he dangles high overhead, yes, there they are. His tighty whities. A Rochester Fringe tradition.

Jeff Spevak, a cultural arts contributor to WXXI, is a Rochester-based writer. His web site is